Improbable Journey: The story of New York’s High Line [video]
How CSX helped turn an abandoned rail line in the heart of Manhattan’s Meatpacking District into one of the country’s most unique parks
Railroad lines crisscrossing the country move freight, delivering everything from coal to cars. But one rail line running above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side moves your soul, delivering sanctuary amid coneflower and pink evening primrose.
The High Line, a deteriorating elevated rail line turned iconic city park, moves closer to completion with the recent donation of the third and final section of the High Line by CSX Transportation, Inc. The first two sections offer a mile walk along a lush, meadow-like setting from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to West 34th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues.
A brief history
Trains began chugging through the West Side of Manhattan more than a decade before the start of the Civil War. The trains traveled at grade level alongside pedestrians and horse-drawn wagons on crowded city streets. So many accidents happened that 10th Avenue became known as “Death Avenue.” This led to men on horses — the West Side Cowboys — to ride in front of the trains waving red warning flags.
City, state and New York Central Railroad officials in 1929 agreed to build an elevated railway and eliminate 105 street-level railroad crossings known as the West Side Improvement. Trains began using the High Line in 1934. Factories and warehouses along the way were renovated, moving shipping docks to the upper floors so that raw and manufactured goods could come and go without causing street-level congestion.
As manufacturing in the city declined following World War II, so did train traffic. The southernmost section of the High Line was demolished in the 1960s, and in 1980 three carloads of frozen turkeys were the last freight hauled on the High Line.
When CSX acquired 42 percent of the assets of the Conrail in 1998, those assets included 1 1/2 miles of abandoned, crumbling elevated railroad that much of New York City considered an eyesore and a safety hazard. The biggest challenge was finding some use for the property into the future.
“Having almost a mile and half of property through Manhattan is highly unusual,” recalls Steve Crosby, president of CSX Real Property, Inc.
Some sections of the High Line had already been torn down and most New Yorkers, including then Mayor Rudy Giuliani, wanted the rest to go down too.
The leadership of CSX, however, saw in the High Line more than rubble.
While it was clear the remnants of the historic High Line couldn’t be used to run trains, what it could be used for wasn’t as clear.
“One of the first things CSX did was commission a study [by the Regional Plan Association] on what do about the High Line,” says Laurie Izes, CSX project manager.
Possible uses of the structure and rights-of-way included parking decks and rolling billboards, recalls Crosby. Also among the possible ideas for the High Line was rail banking – a consensual agreement granting communities right-of-way for rail lines no longer in use. Enrolling the viaduct in the federal “Rails to Trails” program through rail banking, could allow the transformation of the High Line into the city’s most unique park. It was that possibility that captured the imaginations of Joshua David and Robert Hammond, who just happened to be sitting next to each other at the public hearing in which CSX executives presented the study. David and Hammond established Friends of the High Line and a movement was born.
“It was really Friends of the High Line that got the ball going on this and started to create the drama and enthusiasm for this public park,” recalls Pete Shudtz, vice president of federal regulation and general counsel for CSX.
Just as the paintings of Thomas Moran inspired a nation to preserve Yellowstone National Park, the photographs of Joel Sternfeld convinced many New Yorkers the High Line was worth saving.
“One of the single most important things that happened to save the High Line in the very early days was when CSX made it possible for Joel Sternfeld’s project to photograph the High Line,” says David. “They basically made it possible for the world to see what was on top of the High Line.”
What the world saw was a long, narrow wild flower meadow winding above the congested streets of the West Side. They saw something you’ll find nowhere else — something worth saving.
The High Line didn’t appear out of thin air, but thin air played a role in its development. For decades, the High Line had been seen as an ugly obstacle to neighborhood redevelopment. Comprehensive rezoning of the area and provisions to allow the transfer of development rights turned the structure into an asset.
People who owned property under the High Line had the legal right to build a building 10 stories, but the steel structure made that impossible. The transfer of development rights allows such property owners to sell the rights to build higher to neighboring landowners — spinning value out of thin air.
The swearing-in of Michael Bloomberg as the 108th mayor of New York City in 2002 tilted the politics in favor of preserving and redeveloping the High Line and in 2005, the city and CSX entered into a Trail Use Agreement for the High Line. CSX donated the High Line south of West 30th Street to the City of New York.
Construction of the first section of the High Line started in April 2006. The section from Gansevoort Street to West 20th Street opened to the public in June 2009. So many people wanted to stroll the walkways that entry was limited. The second section, from West 20th Street to West 30th Street, opened June 8, 2011.
The last section, expected to begin construction later this year, runs for one-half mile north of the current park and wraps around the West Side Yards, an active rail yard used by the Long Island Rail Road, bounded by West 30th and West 34th streets to the south and north, and 10th and 12th avenues to the east and west.
The design of the latest section includes the “peel-up” benches that define the design of the existing sections. In the rail yard section of the High Line, the “peel-up” benches will evolve into a new family of design elements to create more seating, picnic areas and play features. Just west of 11th Avenue, the railway’s concrete deck will be removed, revealing the framework of the High Line’s original beams and girders. The steel will be covered with a thick rubber safety coating and transformed into a unique type of playground for children.
Now, as transformation of the High Line nears the end of the line, Hammond acknowledges the value of having seasoned railroad men involved, namely Crosby and Shudtz. Hammond says the two CSX executives “had the best understanding how truly difficult and unlikely this would be, and yet they were willing to work with us and give us that opening that helped make it all happen.”
S1: The history of the High Line starting in the 1840s, a bunch of business people in New York came together and planned a railroad. From the 1840s into the early 1900s, it was the primary artery to get people and things, in and out of New York City.
S2: As soon as those tracks got laid, almost from the very beginning in the mid-1800s, there was this problem of the trains traveling at grade level, in a crowded city and the accidents that they caused.
S3: It used to run down on 10th Avenue and it was called Death Avenue, because so many people were run over by the trains.
S1: For a short period of time the New York Central, who began to run the railroad at that point, actually hired people to ride on horses that were called the West Side Cowboys, and they ran out in front of trains with red flags, warning people that the trains were coming.
S2: But in 1929, the city, the state and the New York Central Railroad, came together in an historic agreement, the biggest transportation infrastructure project in New York City, known as the West Side Improvement. What it did basically, was eliminate grade crossings along the west side of Manhattan.
S1: In the early 1930s, the High Line section is completed, from Canal Street up to 34th Street. It was 21 feet above ground. Warehouses in that area were rebuilt, so they could handle freight up at the second or third level.
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S1: Starting in 1934, it got a new nickname which was the Life Line of New York, because it brought in a lot of food, and a lot of the warehouses were old food warehouses, most famously the Nabisco factory, which is now Chelsea Market.
S2: After World War Two, as manufacturing left New York City, the need for heavy freight rail, really began to diminish. Into the 1960s, you basically had the traffic north of there, begin to just disappear.
S3: In the 1960s, part of it from Clarkson to Bank Street was demolished. Then there was another demolition in 1990, that brought it up to Gansevoort Street, which is where it ends today.
S1: Well, CSX and its predecessors date back to 1827 and then we're stewards of a marvelous infrastructure that goes through thousands of communities of the Eastern United States. We're primarily a freight railroad of course, that's our bread and butter.
S2: Well, we acquired the property as part of our acquisition of Conrail, and having almost a mile and a half of property through lower Manhattan is highly unusual. There's nothing else like it.
S1: When we first came to see the High Line in its aging quality, we realized that this was a property no longer used for rail operations, and that we had to find some use for the property into the future.
S2: The High Line had some issues. It was the subject of ongoing lawsuits. It had some deterioration that was being pointed out by building inspectors and others.
S1: So the first strategy, immediately after Conrail was acquired, the push was to demolish it. We didn't necessarily think that was a great thing, but that seemed to be what the city wanted and all the interests wanted.
S1: One of the first things that CSX did was commission a study, on what to do about High Line for the Regional Plan Association.
S2: We listened to others who had ideas on how this property might be utilized, everything from a horizontal parking lot, to a rolling billboard.
S1: One of the possible solutions that came out of that report, was rail banking.
S3: Well, rail banking is the idea that when lines of railroad becomes no longer useful for freight usage, interested parties and the communities, governmental agencies, can work out a consensual arrangement with the freight railroad, to reuse the right of way for a trail or other park-like purposes.
S4: I live in the West Village, I know I've seen the High Line, but really didn't give it that much thought. Then I read an article in the New York Times, that it was going to be demolished.
Robert: So in that newspaper article, CSX mentioned the openness to the idea of doing some kind of park proposal on the High Line.
S4: I went to my first community board meeting, where I heard CSX was presenting a study that they had commissioned from the RPA, about different uses. I sat next to Robert.
S4: The discussion about the High Line began. CSX, basically said they were looking at all different kinds of options, but most people in the room, either didn't care at all or really wanted to tear it down.
Robert: Then we began to look at how could we build an organization, with a mission of preserving the structure, and figuring out an exciting way to reuse it.
S4: We realized we were the only two people really interested in it, so we exchanged business cards and that's how we started Friends of the High Line.
Robert: We went and approached CSX about the idea.
S2: It was really through the Friends of the High Line, who got the ball going on this, and started to create the drama and the enthusiasm for this public park.
Robert: One of the single most important things that happened to save the High Line, in the very early days was when CSX made it possible for Joel Sternfeld's project to photograph the High Line. They basically made it possible, for the world to see what was on top of the High Line.
S4: When you got up there there was a mile and a half of wildflowers running right through the middle of Manhattan with views of the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty and that's really when I fell in love with it. It's so spectacular. It's so unusual, that you couldn't let go after that.
S1: We were invited to visit an earlier administration in the city of New York and I had the opportunity of meeting with the Deputy Mayor, who told us as we walked in the door that our High Line was the biggest blight in the city of New York.
S2: We really didn't own land; we owned rights, property rights, but they were in the air; we own an aerial easement. We own a concrete and steel structure but it overrides other properties owned by other people, whose ability to develop their property in the future, is severely impacted by the fact that it has this big railroad structure over it.
S1: A group of property owners came to City Hall wheeling a cart, on which there was a big chunk of concrete that had fallen from the High Line onto somebody's property and this was how they made their case, for why the city had to tear down the High Line, as soon as possible. Because in their view, it was a threat to health and safety of people in the area.
S2: The city during the years from the 80's to the 90's, agreed with the property owners. They also felt there was no opportunity for development of the High Line and that it was a blight, and they were really looking to get this part of the city developed.
S3: The Meat Packing District and West Chelsea were already beginning to transform. There were galleries coming in, more restaurants. The previous administration looked at the High Line as something that, if it came down, we could just really redevelop the neighborhood.
S1: Here you have this neighborhood that's so close to so many other prime parts of Manhattan...
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S1: ... yet the zoning still proscribed largely manufacturing uses, that had left the city decades ago, and it wasn't coming back.
S2: There are people who have the right to feel the other way about it.
S1: It got to the point, wherein the final days of the Guiliani administration, papers were signed that would have committed the city to participating in a demolition agreement for the High Line.
S2: There was a real turning point in the city's policy towards the High Line, in the 2001-2002 time frame and it's really attributable to one simple reason, the change in the mayoral administration.
S1: The High Line's a good idea. We don't have anything like it in this city.
S2: The Bloomberg administration understood the visions that the Friends had for the reuse of the Line, as well as our desires, for the use of the Line as a public park.
S1: Coincident with the redevelopment of the High Line, there was a city policy to encourage the redevelopment of the entire neighborhood and that required a rezoning. But how do we figure out how to use the city's interest in up-zoning, with the communities interest in preserving this immediate area, and the interest in preserving the High Line itself as a park and combining those things, using a tool called the Transfer of Development Rights or TDR's, as they're known.
S2: For example, assume that a property owner whose property isn't cumbered by the High Line, has the legal right to build a six-story building, but because of the High Line can really only build a one-story building. We created the right for the adjacent property owner to theoretically, build a ten-story building but only gave them the air rights to enable them to build a five-story building. How could they build a ten-story building? They had to purchase five stories from the property owner, whose site lay underneath the High Line.
S1: At that point, everybody was able to come together over the next couple of years, on an agreement where the underlying property owners would be able to get the benefit of these transferred development rights.Where the railroad would be indemnified for any liabilities, with the city getting the ability to zone the way it wanted to zone, and the Friends being able to preserve the Line in its entirety.
S1: Hey, this has been a moment that I know we've all been eagerly awaiting. After Mayor Bloomberg came in office, we started thinking about design. We did a real design competition in 2004, where we actually selected the design team of James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio and Renfro.
S2: We broke ground in April of 20 and 06, seeing the transformation of this structure beginning was just incredibly moving and beautiful.
S3: The design and construction really achieved the goals of reclaiming a usable past.
S1: The planting is really one of the things that's so special about the High Line. It was done by a garden designer named Piet Oudolf and he really was inspired by this wild landscape that was growing, but now it changes every two weeks.
S2: We opened the first section in 2009.
S4: It was such an outstanding success when it first opened that they had to limit access that summer.
S1: Before we opened we thought, maybe 300,000 people would come a year. Last year, we had 3.7 million visitors and this year we'll definitely have over 4 million visitors, so it's far exceeded anything that we thought of. Every time I look at it, I have to almost pinch myself. You know, I'll be walking in the area, and I'll hear people talking on the phone and they'll say, "Oh, I'll meet you at the High Line," and then we opened the second section, from 20th to 30th Street in 2011.
S2: In coming years, we hope to open the final section at the West Side Rail Yards, bringing the arts to 34th Street.
S3: Well, I think CSX is extremely proud to be part of a project that has been so successful.
S5: This has become an enormous icon of New York City now, and it's a place that people come from all over the world to see.
S2: I think everybody who worked on the project, whether at Friends of the High Line, at CSX or at the city were all grateful for having played a part in something that's really going to have a lasting impact here in New York.
S4: Everyone loves trains and people always love that sense of the journey, and the idea of looking out the window and watching a changing landscape. The High Line, I think evokes and preserves that.
S1: You know, Steve and Pete probably had the best understanding of how truly difficult and unlikely this would be, and yet they were willing to work with us, and give us that opening that helped make it all happen.